A look back at the fiasco of a film festival

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In 2019, the New Zealand International Film Festival drew a quarter of a million viewers for its 155 feature films from 47 countries at 13 centers across the country.

Today, the future of this festival is uncertain, after losing nearly a million dollars in 2021. Covid-19 is blamed but I think that is only part of the explanation.

In 2020, as the global lockdown hit theaters and film production around the world, NZIFF pioneered a hybrid mix of online presentation and selected screenings in 15 still open theaters. The number of features has dropped to 79.

It was a model successfully copied by other festivals. Last year, for example, the French-language Cinemania in Montreal, Canada, had 77,000 viewers, up from 30,000 before the pandemic. It sold 1,500 passports compared to 500 the previous year. This considerable increase in attendance was due to the availability of films to all Canadians, with English subtitles.

This year, Cinemania has increased the hybrid model to 100 online screenings and 128 theatrical screenings of 85 feature films over 13 days. This compared to only 63 theatrical screenings in 2018.

In contrast, the NZIFF has bet this year by postponing the traditional start of the festival to mid-July to October and abandoning the hybrid model in favor of theaters only. The decision turned out to be disastrous. A three-month lockdown forced full cancellations in Auckland and Hamilton, while appearances in Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and eight other centers failed to cushion the financial blow.

Poor attendance

The low attendance cannot be due to the absence of a quality offer. The Christchurch program consisted of 100 feature films, including several dozen must-see winners who are at the heart of any festival.

What had changed was the direction and marketing of the festival from a path it had followed for about 50 years, since the first Auckland International Film Festival held in 1969 (and which I attended ). This was followed soon after by Wellington, which eventually morphed into the New Zealand International Film Festival, as it was called until recently.

The history of these festivals, and their origins in earlier attempts, is told in Gosden’s story, a $ 50 iced coffee table book edited by Dame Gaylene Preston and Tim Wong. It is compiled from the writings of Bill Gosden, who died in 2020.

He started working for the NZ Federation of Film Societies in 1979. Two years later he replaced Lindsay Shelton as director of the Wellington International Film Festival, then in its 11th year.

Its most famous attraction was that of Ermanno Olmi The tree with wooden shoes.

Original impulse

This is the kind of film that prompted Gosden to write: “The impetus that gave life to the first Wellington and Auckland festivals was the desire to see films that did not make it to New Zealand.

Bill Gosden in his office in the 90s.

Later, presenting the 1998 program, he wrote about a “wonderful selection of films on blood sports, bad fathers, sexual masochism, drug addiction, racist politics, sexism and cruelty at work, homophobes murderers, death row inmates, murdering children, stroke victims, to be or not to be, the Holocaust and, to top it off, a documentary on the aging process.

Fans of the festival will recognize that not much has changed in the content of the world’s best films, and neither should it. But compare Gosden’s targeting with that of his successor, whose intentions were described as follows in a newspaper interview: “At the top of his wishlist, he’s reaching an audience that is typically unrepresented. among the urban middle class and somewhat older fans. “

This is the explanation, I believe, of why the festival has become a cultural victim, in economic terms, of the class war against the middle class. This has happened in other arts, such as opera, and in attempts to abolish concert radio, where the primary focus and audiences are ignored in favor of a program to undermine long-standing values. The success of writers’ festivals, also affected by Covid, is that they target a known and reliable market with no hidden agendas.

Many battles

Gosden and his colleagues have understood this and have fought many battles in an industry where commerce, art and community standards collide on many levels. Not the least is government intervention through censorship and a revenue grab that imposes costs on all film screenings.

In the early 1990s, Gosden was publicly attacked by censorship for “objectifying women” and as a result, she banned Henri; Portrait of a serial killer. It was the start, writes Gosden, of a culture war to “cancel” films that “humiliate” people.

A scene from Y tu mama también by Alfonso Cuaron (And your mother too)
A scene from Y tu mama también by Alfonso Cuaron (And your mother too).

In 2002, the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards attempted to stop the opening night screening of a Mexican film, There you mama también, by an injunction that was overturned just hours before the start time. Today, this movie, directed by Oscar winner Alfonso Cuaron, wouldn’t wink at what’s available on TV or Netflix.

Meanwhile, the theater side had undergone dramatic changes from a regulated two-channel system tied to particular distributors to an open market that could compete with home viewing of video tapes and DVDs.

The quality of theaters improved, after Hollywood-controlled distributors said they would favor investment in multiplexes, and entrepreneurs such as Barrie Everard spotted opportunities in arthouse theaters fulltime.

Upgraded theaters

Gosden supported these movements, which led to the modernization of the Embassy in Wellington, where Sir Peter Jackson organized a the Lord of the Rings world premiere, and the Civic in Auckland.

After the millennium, the industry underwent more dramatic changes with the shift to digital production and projection. The boxes and reel of film have been replaced by digital devices, drastically reducing costs and improving accessibility.

cinema festival program
The programs were a distinctive part of the festivals.

Film buffs could access foreign reviews online to see what was available, and video stores were booming. The festivals reacted by considerably increasing their selection. The 2006 program, for example, had 228 pages in A5 format, compared to 100 pages in 2019 in A4. If anything, festivals have gotten bloated by adding lots of extras such as animation, Ant Timpson’s Incredably Strange, and promoting short films.

While Wellington’s first festival in 1972 offered just nine films, opening by Eric Rohmer Claire’s knee, no one could see more than part of the 160 feature films screened in 2013 or the 177 in 2018.

Not all foreigners

Although the festivals were mostly about foreign films and the best of other cultures around the world, Gosden gave generous access to the local industry, although this was not entirely justifiable for commercial reasons.

Festivals, before 2020, were 95% self-funded, with additional government agencies to promote production in the heavily subsidized production sector.

Bill Gosden in one of his last film festival appearances.
Bill Gosden in one of his last film festival appearances.

In particular, Gosden follows festivals support for Preston, on his part Mr. Bad in 1985 until My year with Hélène in 2017, as well as for Jane Campion, from Dear and Angel at my table in 1990 to this year Year of the dog, which, although filmed here, takes place in Montana.

But Gosden’s lesson is that the focus of an international festival should be on proposing the key audience to see the best of the world’s cinema, not a prop for local producers.

Of course, some meet both criteria, as Campion and others have shown with The Black Horse, The Repetition, and Poi E. Jackson too Celestial creatures back in 1994.

The divine years.  Photo: Liam Brown
The divine years. Photo: Liam Brown

The uncertain future

The future of an international film festival for New Zealanders, as opposed to a festival promoting cultural change to achieve desired results, remains to be seen. It will take a huge injection of funds. The worst outcome would be a government bailout with conditions. Foreign distributors won’t be impressed by the lack of business acumen shown by Gosden’s successor, who has since resigned and returned to the Netherlands.

As for the frozen fans of the Auckland festival, there is some compensation in Timpson’s ‘In the Shade’ festival over a fortnight at the end of January in two independent but less than perfect cinemas. It selected 35 foreign feature films in the Christchurch NZIFF program and added 17 more. That leaves 27 foreign feature films, by my calculations, that may or may not resurface now that all theaters are open.

Festival enthusiasts should note that no less than 20 titles from both lists are in View and soundTop 50 of 2021 chosen by 100 global critics. If Timpson and his colleagues are successful, he would be a suitable person to carry on Gosden’s legacy.


The Gosden years: a legacy of the New Zealand film festival, by Bill Gosden. Edited by Gaylene Preston and Tim Wong (VUP).

Nevil Gibson is a former editor of NBR. He has written film and book reviews in various publications.

This is content provided and not paid for by NBR.

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